On Feb. 16, helicopter-borne teams of U.S. special-operations personnel and Afghan commandos descended into the Charikar district of Parwan province, an increasingly violent swath of northern Afghanistan. The elite forces swarmed an insurgent safe house and captured a senior “media emir” named Farid, a former dentist who was helping the Taliban spread their message throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Navy SEALs quickly subdued Farid, but that was just the beginning. A senior NATO official with direct knowledge of the raid said that the SEALs searched Farid’s hideout and used specially designed equipment to mine information about other militants from his computers, cellular phones, and satellite phones. The commandos relayed the data to another SEAL team on standby at a nearby U.S. outpost, the NATO official said. The second detachment of SEALs and Afghan commandos quickly used that information to arrest a suspected producer of roadside bombs and an insurgent who officials say commanded dozens of fighters in eastern Afghanistan. The entire sequence of raids took just over an hour, the NATO official said.
The raid on Farid was only one of more than a dozen capture-or-kill missions that took place on Feb. 16, just a single day in the huge and sustained increase in special-ops attacks in the past few years. In 2010, according to one former top officer, special-operations teams carried out about 4,000 missions. The overwhelming majority were in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, including the assassination of Osama bin Laden earlier this year.
But the raids aren’t limited to war zones. In a far-reaching shift, the United States is taking the tactics and systems it developed in Afghanistan and Iraq and applying them across a broad swath of the globe. Joint “hunter-killer” teams, made up of elite military forces and Central Intelligence Agency paramilitary operatives, have carried out missions inside a half-dozen other sovereign countries. Among them: Lebanon, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.
The battlefield is likely to expand even farther in the years ahead: U.S. personnel are actively monitoring the potential threats from Islamist extremist movements in the Horn of Africa and Central Asia. The Obama administration has made clear that it will not shy away from unilateral strikes into other countries if it believes it has credible and timely intelligence on specific suspected terrorists. In early May, for instance, a special-operations aircraft flew into Yemen and fired missiles at a truck that officials said was carrying Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born radical cleric who appears to have inspired the would-be Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, and the accused Fort Hood shooter, Nidal Hasan. Awlaki escaped the strike and remains at large.
New combinations of commandos from military units such as the SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force and of civilian personnel from the CIA’s Special Activities Division are carrying out the missions. The teams have killed about 20 senior militants in countries other than Afghanistan and Iraq, according to U.S. officials familiar with their work. That’s a far higher figure than has previously been disclosed. The teams have also helped to kill dozens of other suspected militants by covertly entering hostile countries and then directing missile strikes by drone aircraft and helicopters. In Libya, roughly two dozen SAD operatives have been working with rebels for the past several months to coordinate the NATO airstrikes that helped topple Libyan strongman Muammar el-Qaddafi, according to an official with direct knowledge of their work.
The franchising of the war on terrorism carries big potential risks. Yemen and Pakistan have tacitly endorsed U.S. drone strikes within their borders, and Somalia’s fragile government has publicly requested American military and intelligence assistance. But unilaterally deploying what amount to U.S. hit teams in sovereign countries could spark fierce diplomatic and political backlashes. Pakistan reacted furiously to the May raid that killed bin Laden, and Islamabad threatened to use military force against any new American ground incursions into the country. Hezbollah, the heavily armed Shia militia, has threatened to retaliate against Israel for any American strikes inside Lebanon or Syria.
In Afghanistan, the huge number of raids is complicating the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, which depends on winning the support of the Afghan people. The missions have killed and injured significant numbers of civilians and terrified countless others. Under public pressure, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has demanded a halt to the raids, but senior U.S. military officials have thus far rejected any change in strategy.
It’s difficult to gauge how well the new approach is working. Senior U.S. officials believe that the operations have decimated al-Qaida’s senior ranks and made it extremely difficult for the group to raise money or plan attacks. In July, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that the U.S. was “within reach of strategically defeating” al-Qaida, and American counterterrorism officials note that no large-scale terrorist strikes have taken place inside the United States since Sept.11, 2001. But key militant leaders such as Awlaki and the new Qaida leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, remain at large. Regional affiliates of the militant group, meanwhile, have recently mounted strikes in Algeria, Nigeria, and other countries.
Conditions also remain dicey in Afghanistan, even though U.S. special-operations teams and CIA paramilitary operatives have mounted thousands of targeted strikes there. In an interview, the senior NATO official said that the joint teams killed or captured 235 militant leaders in Afghanistan over a 90-day period in summer 2010 while killing 1,066 rank-and-file fighters. The U.S. forces captured nearly 1,700 other insurgents during those three months, the official said.
But the Taliban is far from subdued. The number of roadside-bomb attacks in Afghanistan spiked to a record 1,600 this June, nearly 25 percent higher than the monthly average for the entire conflict. U.S., NATO, and Afghan casualties have been rising steadily. At least 416 American and NATO troops have died so far this year, putting 2011 on pace to match and probably exceed the record 711 killed in Afghanistan last year. The Taliban is also stepping up its attacks in once-quiet parts of northern and western Afghanistan, while showing no interest in substantive peace talks.
Right or wrong, the hunt-to-kill teams seem certain to remain a cornerstone of U.S. national-security strategy for years to come. The Obama administration is giving the joint special-operations/CIA teams wide latitude to conduct targeted missions around the world. Adm. Eric Olson, who just stepped down as the head of the military’s secretive Special Operations Command, told the Aspen Security Forum this summer that his forces conducted nearly 4,000 such operations in 2010 alone, the highest level recorded. “The tactics of this thing were routine,” Olson said, referring to the bin Laden raid. “The people who were involved do this every night.”
The expansion of kill teams may be the most enduring legacy of retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who resigned from his post as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan last year after an unflattering profile in Rolling Stone. McChrystal may no longer be in uniform, but the systems he set up in Iraq and refined in Afghanistan are what allow the special-ops forces and the intelligence community to work together more closely and effectively than ever before, particularly in newer battlegrounds such as Somalia and Yemen.
He dramatically expanded the number of special-operations/CIA teams when he ran the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq from February 2006 to August 2008. The forces hunted down thousands of Shia and Sunni insurgent leaders during those two and a half years. Many senior military officials believe that the special operations and CIA combined teams played a central role, along with the Sunni Awakening movement, in turning things around in Iraq.
McChrystal also helped to develop equipment and training protocols so that the joint teams could immediately reap valuable information, such as phone numbers and computer files, and feed it to other teams that could then locate and attack other militants.
“The systems he put in place were nothing short of revolutionary,” Gen. David Petraeus, then the top commander in Afghanistan, told National Journal in an interview last fall. With the war against terrorism shifting to new fights against shadowy groups in places such as Somalia and Yemen, a close look at the McChrystal doctrine provides a road map of sorts for the future.
In many ways, McChrystal spent much of his career grooming fighters for covert warfare. The son of a two-star Army general who served in Germany after World War II, he went to the U.S. Military Academy and joined all of his siblings in either joining or marrying into the armed forces. He spent nearly three decades in the covert world of “black SOF,” the ultrasecret military units such as Delta Force charged with killing or capturing the nation’s most-wanted enemies.
In 2003, McChrystal led a classified Joint Special Operations task force that captured fugitive Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Three years later, his forces tracked Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a violent extremist who ran al-Qaida’s Iraq operations, to a safe house near the restive city of Baquba. Delta Force personnel on the ground called in an airstrike, and an American F-16 demolished the building with a pair of 500-pound bombs. McChrystal, who had spent years hunting Zarqawi, left his base in Baghdad and flew to the site. When he arrived, the terrorist — who had suffered serious wounds from the airstrike — was strapped to a stretcher and barely conscious. According to an operative who was at the scene, the general looked down at Zarqawi, nodded his head, and then flew back to Baghdad.
McChrystal later told colleagues that the Zarqawi raid was the “proof of concept” for his approach to counterterrorism. The special-operations personnel hunted down the terrorist in close collaboration with the CIA, whose agents helped to identify and track Zarqawi’s spiritual adviser and closest confidant, and with the National Security Agency, whose technological wizards eavesdropped on conversations between the spiritual adviser and Zarqawi’s primary courier. As with the raid in Afghanistan years later that captured Farid, the Delta team’s work didn’t end with the airstrike on Zarqawi’s compound. The operators searched through the wreckage of the insurgent safe house and funneled phone numbers and files to other special-ops personnel. Within hours, teams from McChrystal’s command raided 17 locations in and around Baghdad, killing several wanted militants and seizing enemy files about planned attacks.
McChrystal, who declined to be interviewed for this article, detailed the evolution of his thinking on counterterrorism in a little-noticed Foreign Policy article earlier this year. In the essay, he wrote that the U.S. military’s fundamental mistake in the early years of the Iraq war had been to assume that al-Qaida in Iraq functioned like a traditional military organization. Early on, special-operations units diagrammed the terrorist group on dry-erase boards at their small base outside Baghdad. They mapped it out like a foreign army, with Zarqawi at the top of its chain of command followed by tiers of regional commanders, lieutenants, and foot soldiers.
But McChrystal and his colleagues quickly realized that the model didn’t hold. Decisions weren’t made by Zarqawi and then relayed down the ladder to individual fighters. Instead, small groups of fighters operated autonomously and without waiting for orders from commanders.
“We really didn’t understand the enemy we were facing,” said retired Brig. Gen. Craig Nixon, who served with McChrystal in Iraq and commanded the elite 75th Ranger Regiment in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It took a long time to sort out how different it was from the previous enemies we’d faced. We all felt a sense of urgency, because we were facing the real prospect of not winning.”
As they studied al-Qaida in Iraq, McChrystal and his aides realized that the terrorists operated as a network of loosely affiliated fighters, not a hierarchy led by Zarqawi. Defeating such a network, they concluded, would require the U.S. to create a network of its own. The first step involved relocating civilian analysts from the CIA, NSA, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to the tent outside Baghdad that housed his Special Operations personnel. That move enabled the civilian and military operatives to jointly analyze information and funnel “actionable intelligence” to forces in the field much more quickly.
McChrystal and his team began to refer to their new creation as “F3EA”: find, fix, finish, exploit, and analyze. He writes in the Foreign Policy essay that the strategy combined analysts who found targets through eavesdropping and other forms of intelligence-gathering; drone operators who fixed the target by keeping it under constant surveillance; strike teams that killed or captured wanted militants; technicians capable of quickly mining strike sites for maps and other raw data; and a second set of intelligence analysts who converted that information into actionable intelligence for other attack teams.
Under this system, U.S. forces could launch follow-on operations within hours rather than days. McChrystal and others who served with him at the time acknowledge, however, that they made numerous missteps and faced setbacks along the way. In several cases, the teams failed to analyze intelligence gathered at the scene of a raid quickly enough, giving other militants time to escape before the strike teams could kill or capture them. In other cases, the raids killed innocent Iraqis or damaged civilians’ homes or cars, spurring widespread — and, in some cases, violent — anger toward the U.S.
The CIA and the special-operations community also needed to overcome lingering bad blood before the two groups could work together effectively. During the Bush years, the Pentagon embedded small teams of SEALs and other elite military forces in U.S. embassies around the world to gather intelligence and prepare for possible missions to kill or capture local militants. The move infuriated many within the CIA, who felt that the troops were encroaching on their turf and taking on roles more properly assigned to the civilian intelligence community. Many special-ops personnel, meanwhile, criticized the CIA for failing to provide useful intelligence on the whereabouts of bin Laden and other wanted terrorists.
Nixon, the former McChrystal aide, said that some of the internal conflicts stemmed from a fundamental difference between the military, which saw its mission as killing insurgents, and the intelligence community, which saw the value of keeping suspected militants under surveillance in the hope of gaining more information about higher-ranking fighters.
“Are you better off executing a target or continuing to use that target to refine your intelligence? The incentives were different depending on which part of the stovepipe you were in,” Nixon said. “There were some trust gaps up front that we had to work through.”
Over time, however, the tension subsided and the joint systems grew increasingly efficient. The CIA’s Special Activities Division has only a few hundred operatives, but most of them are veterans of Delta Force and other elite military units. The paramilitary operatives thus have the same backgrounds, speak the same language, and in many cases have actually served alongside the military personnel they’re teamed with in the hunter-killer units. To coordinate even more closely, NSA deployed mobile analysts who often accompany the special-ops teams in specially equipped Humvees that can track cell-phone signals to pinpoint a specific militant within a few feet of his location. By the end of McChrystal’s time in Iraq, joint teams of commandos and CIA operatives were conducting about a dozen raids per day, in many cases launching follow-up assaults based on information found at an initial target site.
“Intelligence recovered on the spot was instantly pushed digitally from the target to analysts who could translate it into actionable data while the operators would still be clearing rooms and returning fire,” McChrystal wrote. “The intelligence recovered on one target in, say, Mosul, might allow for another target to be found, fixed upon, and finished in Baghdad, or even Afghanistan”¦. The network sometimes completed this cycle three times in a single night in locations hundreds of miles apart — all from the results of the first operation.”
“It really was a significant advance over what came before,” said retired Army Col. Pete Mansoor, who was Petraeus’s executive officer in Iraq during the surge and is now a professor of military history at Ohio State University. “The ability to quickly combine on-the-ground human analysis with intelligence gathered from raids, and to be able to turn that very quickly into targetable information, is a quantum leap over what the military had in the late 1990s or the early part of the Afghan war.”
In the past several years, U.S. officials have used the systems and teams that McChrystal put in place in Iraq to covertly kill militant leaders in a wide array of other countries. In October 2008, CIA operatives in Iraq discovered that a militant named Abu Ghadiya was hiding out in the Syrian village of Sukkariyah, approximately five miles from the Iraqi border. U.S. officials say that Abu Ghadiya had overseen the smuggling of weapons, money, and foreign fighters from Syria to Iraq. The CIA funneled the information on his whereabouts to Joint Special Operations Command, which sent a detachment of Delta Force operatives into Syria at night that killed him and his bodyguards.
The following year, a detachment of Navy SEALs flew into Somalia to kill Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a senior Qaida leader in Africa; the U.S. commandos strafed Nabhan’s car from the air, landed to recover his body, and then flew back to a waiting warship. In 2010, a small detachment of special-operations troops and CIA paramilitary operatives went into Yemen to help battle militants there. U.S. officials familiar with the matter say the team helped the Yemenis kill half of the Qaida affiliate’s top 15 leaders in the country.
Skeptics caution that body counts aren’t the same as victory. Bill Roggio is the editor of The Long War Journal, a website that tracks and analyzes military and CIA operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other hot spots. In an interview, Roggio said that hunter-killer operations were “efficient but not sufficient.” In fact, he said, the U.S. raids could end up sparking so much anger that they create more militants than they kill or capture.
“It’s good, it works, and it gets guys all over the world,” Roggio said. “But can you get enough of them, and can you do it fast enough to make a difference? I’m not sure the answer is yes.”
U.S. officials don’t show any signs of letting up, either inside Afghanistan or in the newer battlegrounds. During a confirmation hearing earlier this year for his post as the head of the Special Operations Command, Navy Adm. William McRaven told lawmakers that Somalia and Yemen were “areas of concern” and said that special-operations forces were “looking very hard” in their direction. It was a rare public acknowledgment of the growing military and CIA presence inside the two troubled nations.
For those on both sides of the shadow war, the fight is personal. Just as McChrystal had flown to Baquba to lay eyes on Zarqawi after the 2006 airstrike that mortally wounded him, McRaven, McChrystal’s successor, was one of the first people to see bin Laden’s corpse after U.S. helicopters landed in eastern Afghanistan.
On the other side of the fight, documents discovered at bin Laden’s lair in Pakistan indicate that he was looking for ways of assassinating Petraeus, and a senior U.S. intelligence official said that intercepted communications inside Afghanistan suggested that Taliban leaders were focused on killing both McChrystal and McRaven. The United States may be winding down its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, but terrorism and the war against it are far from over.